Desanctified churches get new life

Groups preserve the architecture of religious spaces with beer and art

Matthew E. Campbell Jan 30, 2006

Everybody knows the ubiquitous signs outside churches: schedules for Sunday services, inspirational quotes from the Bible, and advertisements for Saturday night bingo. Every once in a while, however, you’ll be startled at the sight of a sign that might read, “Pittsburgh’s Finest Brew Pub since 1996.” How do religious spaces come to be rebuilt and redesigned for non-religious purposes?

In many areas of Pittsburgh, people have had to deal with changes resulting from the collapse of the steel industry. Communities and buildings are all affected; churches, too, have had to adapt. East Liberty, for example, has a rich religious history from the days when it was one of the largest cities in the state. Lawrenceville, in similar style, saw a mass exodus of much of its population. The various Catholic parishes’ congregation sizes shrunk, and they were forced to consolidate. This is what happened to St. John the Baptist, built in 1902. Its tiny congregation, consisting mostly of elderly citizens, was unable to ensure the church’s financial stability. As a result, the church was shut down in 1993 and put up for sale by the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

St. John the Baptist was purchased by a group of restaurateurs. On August 1, 1996, St. John the Baptist Church became The Church Brew Works, a microbrewery and restaurant. Although the restaurant still receives a few calls every year criticizing the establishment of a microbrewery in a church, president Sean Casey said that that criticism has petered out. He said that the church had “a for sale sign just like any other for sale sign.” Casey paid $191,200 for the building, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The Church Brew Works restaurant was the first time that the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh had sold one of its churches to a developer. Father Thomas J. Burke, parochial vicar of St. Paul Cathedral across from CMU’s Software Engineering Institute, said, “The diocese kind of got burned when the developer didn’t remove the religious items.”

The diocese had not removed many religious items from St. John the Baptist, anticipating that the developers would remove the items; however, many of the holy items are still on display at The Church Brew Works. Since then, the diocese has created a process for closing down churches. In addition to the traditional farewell mass, the church that is shutting down will be “desanctified.” In Burke’s words, “It’s no longer a church, it’s just a building.” The diocese removes any religious items like crosses, stained-glass windows, and the altar.

Many people in historical circles are actually grateful to Casey’s group for purchasing the church and restoring it. “We’ve [Pittsburgh] had an unfortunate history of knocking down beautiful buildings,” Casey said. “We’ve done very little to change the building. We wanted to preserve the architecture, and historical societies appreciate that.”

In fact, the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation gave the church Historic Landmark status in 2001. This doesn’t actually protect the building from demolition, but it recognizes that the building’s Northern Italian architectural style has been preserved.

Casey would describe his restaurant as having a “family” atmosphere. He said, “You’ll see four generations of people eating here. There’s a little of something for everybody. Even though we make beer, people bring their families here.”

The Church Brew Works embraces its religious setting. From their website: “By far, the most breathtaking element is the position of the brew house on the altar ... the steel and copper tanks gleaming in the celestial blue backdrop is nothing less than captivating.” It also stores merchandise in one of the former confessionals.

It is the (perhaps ironic) position of the brew house on the altar that concerns some. “I would rather see a building used for apartments or a restaurant than be torn down, but the beer tap on the altar makes me uncomfortable,” Burke said about The Church Brew Works, a place he has dined at before. Indeed, several other churches in Pittsburgh have been sold and are now used as reception halls, law offices, and even a home for the elderly.

Another church, the Union Baptist Church in East Liberty, had shut down and fallen into disrepair. In 2001, a group of volunteers stepped in to repair the church. They purchased the church for $125,000, according to the Post-Gazette. “By August 2005 the Union Project had hosted over 1300 volunteers for over 13,000 hours of work,” stated the Union Project’s website. “Fundraising toward the $1.5 million was 90 percent complete.” The project also received many corporate donations and grants from The Sprout Fund, the H.J. Heinz Co. Foundation, and the Allegheny Foundation. According to the Post-Gazette, the Union Project also received a $700,000 federal grant.

The church, which reopened recently, has been renamed the “Open Door Church.” It is no longer Baptist, but non-denominational. The building is no longer exclusively a church either; rather, it is a community center. The building houses offices for non-profit organizations and serves a variety of other purposes; there is also gallery space. The center offers classes in ceramics and stained glass. Some events coming up include a showing of the film Crash, followed by a discussion on racial tension, on February 6, and an evening of music and food with members of the Pittsburgh Somali Bantu community on February 20. The Union Project is online at www.unionproject.org.

Churches have, traditionally, always been used as centers for the community. Many churches offer counseling services and sanctuary for the homeless from bitter winter weather. Also, many churches are regularly used for concerts. Last week, the Carnegie Mellon Chamber Orchestra performed in a church. Many classical music recordings have been made in churches because of the great acoustics.

Ryan England, a senior civil and environmental engineering major, was one of many CMU students that volunteered on the Union Project. “Church buildings are often the least used property,” he said. “They use them on Sundays for services, but they’re empty on the other six days of the week.” Hence, the multiple uses of the church building makes perfect sense.

Many have praised the group of volunteers that built the Union Project. State Senator Jim Ferlo is quoted on the Union Project’s website. He said, “This organization has taken on the task of restoring a once vacant building into a remarkable functioning community center.... The Union Project has been very creative and relentless in their fundraising.”

England was very satisfied by the experience of volunteering to work on the Union Project. “I think it was really fun and exciting to be a part of something that could really improve the community. East Liberty has had its ups and downs, but it’s seen a lot of positive growth,” he said. “The Union Project is an expression of hope.”

The Union Project’s most successful event so far was its Martin Luther King Day celebration. “The people who were running it were like ‘Wow, where did everybody come from?’ Everybody was really happy to be there,” England said. The congregation of people packing the church had braved the evening and winter elements to come out for the MLK celebration.

What do The Church Brew Works and the Union Project have in common? They both preserved wonderful church buildings that have been part of the city of Pittsburgh for decades. Like one of the main perceived benefits of organized religion — a community environment where people can rely on one another and enjoy their common sets of beliefs — both the restaurant and the community center bring people together. One brings families together through good food, the other brings people together through the arts and Christianity. And both help to preserve some unique Pittsburgh architecture.